CHICAGO (AP) — Monday night could not have gone better for online troublemakers who have spent years propagating false or misleading conspiracy theories on the internet that the U.S. election is rigged or vulnerable to tampering.
The delayed election results from the Iowa caucuses revealed some Democratic candidates' supporters are so distrustful of the outcome that they peppered the internet with unproven claims that accused the Democratic Party of corruption by attempting to tilt the election in favor of a single candidate.
President Donald Trump and his supporters seized on that distrust by sending tweets Monday night with #RiggedElection. Trump's own sons shouted "Rigged!" at an Iowa campaign event. And Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham suggested in a tweet that the caucus issues were the result of a "Bernie blowout."
It's the type of conspiracy theory that experts fear will dog this year's presidential race until Election Day.
"Democracy depends on the losers accepting election results," said University of California, Irvine, professor Richard Hasen, whose book "Election Meltdown" was published Tuesday in what he said was an ominous coincidence. "Now we're starting off the election season with seeds of doubt, which is terrible."
In recent months, social media users have promoted conspiracy theories around the legitimacy of election results around the country, from a gubernatorial race in Kentucky to statehouse races in Virginia.
The tweets Monday began spreading minutes after the Iowa Democratic Party announced it was reviewing results for "quality control." The app used by the Iowa Democratic Party to collect results Monday experienced technical glitches that left the caucus results in limbo through Tuesday.
"Quality control = rigged?" Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale said in a tweet that has since been shared and liked more than 20,000 times.
As the delay of final results continued into Tuesday, social media users spread theories of complex schemes that were deployed to keep the results hidden in order undermine certain Democratic candidates such as Sen. Bernie Sanders. Many of the tweets suggested the Democratic Party or the Democratic National Convention intentionally bungled the caucus results, even though the Iowa Democratic Party administered Monday's caucus.
"Iowa is just the start guys," wrote one Twitter user, who has a profile picture of himself in a Sanders T-shirt. "The Democratic Party will not allow Bernie to win."
The online conspiracy theories, in some cases, were based on easily debunked or misleading claims.
For example, Facebook and Twitter posts falsely suggested that former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, Sanders' opponent in the 2016 primary, had a hand in developing the ill-fated app used to collect the Iowa results. Further fueling that distrust was that three of the senior executives at Shadow Inc., which created the app, previously worked for Clinton's failed campaign.
Some posts, which were shared thousands of times, accused former Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook of creating the app.
In a tweet, Mook said he "did not have" anything to do with building the caucus app. Mook did not immediately return a request from The Associated Press for comment.
Other online posts placed blamed the problem on a new culprit: Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, the former South Bend, Indiana, mayor who unsuccessfully ran to be the Democratic Party's chairman three years ago.